The paradoxes of Christopher Hitchens
By Nicholas Wapshott
The views expressed are his own.
By now, Christopher Hitchens, who has died from esophageal cancer after weeks of radiation treatment at the Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, will know whether there is or is not a God. If there is an after-life, we can expect Hitch to arrive in combative mood. His strident atheism, like many of the views that contributed to his reputation as America’s most gifted polemicist, was in its way a peculiar act of faith.
Hitch was paradoxical to the end. In his final piece for Vanity Fair, the magazine that brought out the best of his artful argumentative style matched to his almost flippant name-dropping erudition, he confessed, between searing pain and narcotic oblivion, to wanting “to be fully conscious and awake, in order to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive sense.” It left some wondering whether he was sharpening his wits to meet God on the other side.
But then Christopher liked to have everything both ways. A bisexual, he enjoyed putting his liberal men friends to the test by kissing them smack on the lips in front of their wives. He lived half his life as a proud and passionate man of the Left before, in middle age, flipping to what he had until then reviled as the dark side of the political spectrum. He was above all, perhaps, an attention seeker, a born contrarian who desperately wanted to become a professional controversialist. In that, he spectacularly succeeded.
But his route to stardom was often at the expense of those who befriended him or had done him enormous favors. It was with great sadness, but little surprise, that friends of Anthony Howard, the distinguished editor of The New Statesman who gave Hitch his first and most important breaks as a writer, read Christopher’s sour demolition of his old and generous mentor, whom he ridiculed for, of all things, his mundane prose style. The intention, it seems, was no more than to take a prominent leftist scalp while showing he owed his success to no one.
A similar treachery was inflicted upon his pal Sidney Blumenthal, the journalist and Clinton presidential aide who had inspired so many of Hitch’s scoops. Christopher became close to the Blumenthals, attended the bar mitzvah of their son, and, when he belatedly discovered he was himself Jewish, claimed his true name was Blumenthal and that they were now cousins. Anxious to show his independence while trying to deliver a mortal blow to a president facing impeachment, Hitch felt he had been misled by Blumenthal and betrayed his source, leaving Blumenthal facing a jail sentence and landing him with a hefty legal bill. A bid by Blumenthal at a death-bed reconciliation with Hitch was rebuffed.
Perhaps it was his troubled parents – his father was a chilly, taciturn sailor he called “The Commander”; his mother enacted a suicide pact with her young lover after eloping to Greece — who provoked Hitch to lead a life alternating between shock and awe. He became enamored with George Orwell and never lost his undergraduate appetite for big themes, refighting the obscure internecine battles of the Russian Revolutionaries and passionately exploring such fathomless topics as the meaning of life and death.
As a Trotskyist expelled from Britain’s Labour Party for fiercely opposing Lyndon Johnson’s war against the Vietcong, Christopher moved to Washington D.C. to report from the belly of the Great Satan where he discovered the joy of working on a large canvass. His insatiable appetite for notoriety drove him to assail previously irreproachable targets, among them the saintly Mother Theresa and America’s most celebrated public servant, Henry Kissinger. The Islamist fatwah against his friend Salman Rushdie sparked Hitch’s abrupt somersault to the Right and embrace of the Iraq War, a cause many of his former leftist friends deemed even less worthy than Vietnam.
In his final interview — with his fellow atheist Richard Dawkins – that must serve as his epitaph, Hitch discussed his abiding hatred of totalitarianism, “the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquize the divine and tell us what to do.” If Hitch finds there is indeed a God, it is an issue he will surely raise at St Peter’s gates.
Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W. W. Norton.
PHOTO: Christopher Hitchens, journalist and author of his new memoir “Hitch 22,” poses for a portrait outside his hotel in New York, June 7, 2010. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton